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Background. I have recently become interested in music, music theory and practice. I’m starting off with ear training, but I am pretty much at null right now. Or maybe even below null – it seems like every other untrained person could probably do better.

Using the software solfege, I’ve tried distinguishing between the very basic intervals minor second/major second and perfect fourth/perfect fifth. I get about 80% with the former and less than 60% with the latter (and I try really hard – listening to the intervals multiple times and so on). So I’m just slightly better than someone guessing randomly.

I tried distinguishing the intervals by using solfege, that is by filling the intervals with do-re-mi-fa-sol and so on, but I with almost no success.

Eventually I found that I don’t even feel confident about whether I am even able to reproduce the same notes with my voice. I can reproduce notes by trial and error if the notes have the same sound: For example, I could reproduce the exact intervals when I used a virtual keyboard outputting to a midi synthesizer with the same instruments that the played intervals have been synthesized with. But I cannot confidently hear a unison of two differently-sounding notes.

Question. How can I effectively learn to reproduce a note? Do I need a teacher to do that or can I teach it myself? Or is it even impossible to learn? How can I gain certainty with hearing unisons?

And since ear training is not technically singing, what kind of teacher should I approach?

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    I'm not qualified to give a real answer... but I would try training with one of those electronic tuners that tell you if you're too low or too high. – JETM Feb 12 '17 at 13:33
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Answering a question with a question. Can you sing tunes, melodies, songs? Most folk can, not necessarily with all the words, but hum, lah, whistle. If that's you, then approach it a different way. Use two notes from a song - the beginning two is a good start. Work out what interval is made.Amazing Grace, for example, is P4.

I've been singing for decades, and would still have to think what the interval between notes is. It's not too helpful. Academic, but not too practical.

The problem with hearing unison notes played on different instruments could well be the harmonics that are almost inevitably contained. They can throw you off the scent easily, so don't worry too much for now. Keep singing, and in a song, listen out for, say, any maj3s. Take one interval a day, as prescribed!

  • I am also not confident with tunes. I do not know if I sing them correctly. – k.stm Feb 12 '17 at 14:36
  • Get used to singing them, record them, listen back. Sometimes record yourself singing along with the track playing too. Get others to listen and be truthful with their comments. It is possible to be tone deaf, but quite rare. Leave the 'theory' part of music alone until the 'practical' part makes you need it. Reading about stuff does not make you good at doing it. Doing stuff does that. – Tim Feb 12 '17 at 14:45
  • Thanks for the advice. I also like what you have written, but technically it doesn’t answer my question. Still, thanks. – k.stm Feb 12 '17 at 14:57
  • There are four of them there! The best answer, oft quoted here, is go to a teacher. – Tim Feb 12 '17 at 15:21
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I don't think you actually need a teacher. Neither do I think you're going to get this on your own, not even with online ear training websites (which I find often do more harm than good). What you need, I believe, is an ear-training practice PARTNER. (You help each other.)

Don't try to bite off too much at once. Start with learning the difference between octaves and fifths. (Unless you have an actual hearing problem, which you might want to check into, this should come pretty quickly.) One of you plays at random various octaves and fifths at various pitches. The other one sits with back to you and identifies them. The first person makes corrections when you're wrong. ONLY when you have fifths and octaves perfectly 99% of the time do you add in fourths to the mix. Now, as you're already discovered, it gets tricky. But fifths sound hollow and fourths don't. You'll eventually get this.

Note that this doesn't happen really quickly necessarily. It might take a session or two, but you'll get it. Once you are telling fifths and fourths apart with 90% success (and don't forget to throw in the occasional octave), you can start adding in other stuff. Drill on the difference between major and minor triads, in root position. Do your interval drill too, and start to throw in thirds (both major and minor) and when you get that, sixths.

Don't attempt seconds, sevenths, and tritones until you have all of the above 90% of the times. The problem is, your ear (and brain) get overwhelmed by trying to keep track of all the possibilities. Keep the progression simple, and you'll cope better.

Once you're pretty confident with the partner bit, you can start going it alone. And NOW (and not before) is where the voice comes in. (This following works best with a keyboard by the way.) Play a note. Sing that same note as best you can. (Don't worry about whether you have the pitch perfectly or not.) Now POINT to another note, a third, fourth, or fifth away, and sing the pitch you THINK that note will have. Now play that note to see how far off you are. Keep doing this at different pitches and intervals until you are getting it right most of the time.

Don't expect to get this overnight or even in a week. Be patient. Unless your hearing is actually defective (unlikely) you'll eventually get it. I'm not making this stuff up by the way. As a piano teacher for more than fifty years, and a theory, ear training, and composition teacher for half that, and as a voice student for fifteen, I'm pretty confident I know what I'm talking about.

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    Thanks! This seems like very good advice. Why is it important to have a training partner instead of using a software to get played random intervals? What makes the difference? – k.stm Feb 12 '17 at 22:31
  • There are several reasons. 1. The tone quality of the online ear training drills leaves a lot to be desired, even if you use headphones or good speakers. 2. The sites I have seen go through the intervals in the same order every time you run them, rather than randomly. A partner will be truly random (if they're any good). 3. Most importantly, the websites I have seen try to get you to bite off more than you can chew. You really do need to progress through all this VERY SLOWLY, mastering one type of differentiation before you attempt the next. Thus you avoid overwhelming your ear/brain. – L3B Feb 13 '17 at 15:48
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    I should also in my answer have mentioned that you should quit any ear training session when your ear and brain go 'tilt' or your head starts to hurt. And even if that doesn't occur, stop after a half hour. Take at least a ten minute break before doing any more. – L3B Feb 13 '17 at 15:49
  • About the software solfege itself: The tone quality is that of your midi synthesizer and your playback setup (which I find sufficient in my case), it does run through the intervals really randomly (way more than a human partner would do) and it allows to train (a preset of) specific interval distinctions. Anyways, I still think it’s a good idea to seek a training partner! I imagine the feedback to be more instructive than “yes”/“no”. Thanks for your reply! – k.stm Feb 14 '17 at 21:31
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How can I effectively learn to reproduce a note?

I'm pretty sure the concept that is missing in your understanding is beat frequencies.

A beat frequency is what we hear when we hear two notes that are almost, but not quite, the same pitch. When an instrument is out of tune, it sounds bad with the rest of the instruments because the notes it plays are producing distracting beat frequencies with the other instruments.

Here is the science (by "different periods", he is talking science for "different notes"):

And here is a more musical demonstration (the first 15 minutes of this video are the math and science again):

Hopefully, watching that second video will help you learn to hear the beat frequencies. Once you can hear beat frequencies, you can move on to the second phase of being able to sing the correct notes. You have to train your mind to change the note you're singing to eliminate the beat frequencies when you are trying to sing the same note as another singer or instrument. Singing along with an instrument or other singer and minimizing the beat frequencies in real time is an excellent way to learn to sing the correct pitches.

An important note about minimizing beat frequencies: The closer the notes are to each other, the slower the beat frequency. So when you're trying to match a note, you might not know whether to move up or down, so try one way or the other and if the beats slow down, you're getting close. If they speed up, you're going the wrong way.

Eventually, you can learn to hear even quieter beat frequencies between two different notes that are not the same note. For instance, if you play a C on a piano and then sing a G with your voice, if the G is not quite right, you can hear a beat frequency even though the note you're playing on the piano is a completely different note. It may take several years to get to this point, but once you're tuning your voice to instruments that aren't even playing the notes you're singing, then you're really ready to be a lead singer, at least in terms of hitting the notes.

Also, as you work hard and use your brain to adjust your vocal chords to eliminate beat frequencies, you'll start to learn to do it automatically and you won't have to think about it as much, but you'll still have to practice. Also, your ability to hear beat frequencies will keep improving over time, so eventually you'll realize that you aren't quite hitting notes that you thought you were hitting just fine. This is all normal when learning to hit pitches while singing.

Any voice teacher, especially one who works with beginners a lot, should be able to explain and demonstrate this to you. If you're learning on your own, you will really need an instrument to play and hold notes that you can practice matching pitches with.

  • That second video isn't too bad; what I do to demonstrate beats is use two harmonics on guitar, say 5th fret E and 7th fret A. The two can sound simultaneously, then when one is changed with the machine head, the beats can be made faster/slower until they disappear. Not so easy to follow on uke, with tuning breaks. Also, any vibrato that a voice has will act as a red herring. – Tim Feb 13 '17 at 6:29

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